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Newsletter: How Soubin Shahir Became Malayalam Cinema's Everyman

The actor has excelled at playing ordinary, real characters, whose seemingly simple façades hide many a nuance.

Newsletter: How Soubin Shahir Became Malayalam Cinema's Everyman

Soubin Shahir in a promotional poster for Sudani In Nigeria

  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 10.06 AM, Jan 18, 2023

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IF NEW AGE Malayalam cinema has a familiar face, it is that of Soubin Shahir's. In the landscape of realism, everyday stories and ordinary, flawed characters, Soubin's man-next-door persona fits in with ease. As his 53rd film, Djinn, continues its theatrical run, here's a look at how the actor came to be so omnipresent on our screens.

THE RIGHT DIRECTION

That Soubin never intended to become an actor is now part of Malayalam film biz folklore. Instead, the son of production controller Babu Shahir — a longtime associate of director Fazil, the father of actor Fahad Faasil — dreamt of being a filmmaker. Acting was just what happened in the interim before he could manifest his direction dreams.

He started at 14, as an assistant director to Siddique on the sets of Mammootty's Chronic Bachelor. In fact, Soubin recalls being admonished by Mammootty on the sets for skipping school to work in films. Whether or not he returned to the classroom, he continued his learning process on the sets assisting Fazil, Amal Neerad, Santosh Sivan, Rafi Mecartin, Rajeev Ravi, P Sukumar and Anwar Rasheed. Ironically, it was these collaborations that got Soubin his initial acting gigs. Rajeev Ravi’s Annayum Rasoolum, Santosh Sivan’s Urumi, Amal Neerad’s Kullantey Bharya and Iyobinte Pustakam can all be counted as roles Soubin did “out of compulsion”.

Then came 2015 — a momentous year for Soubin. In Sidharth Bharathan’s Chandrettan Evideya, Soubin played the hero’s Man Friday Sumesh, an intrusive, naïve and witty character. It was the first film where Soubin's presence really registered. “I know Soubin as a friend. He used to make these short videos back then and they were hilarious. And even his little impromptu jokes were interesting. He was also interested in acting,” director Sidharth Bharathan recalled, of how the role came to be.

But the real deal came soon after, in Alphonse Puthren’s Premam. Interestingly Puthren called him after watching Annayum Rasoolum. Soubin’s "PT master" in Premam was ingenious, goofy and side-splittingly funny. He offers courting tips to his socially awkward colleague Vimal, in exchange for free lunches. In a scene where protagonist George’s father (played by Renji Panicker) delivers a rousing lecture to the petrified college principal, Soubin blows his whistle at the exact same time as Panicker lands his punchline — a moment so perfect that you're tempted to believe Soubin did it on the spur of the moment, without any cues. In another scene, Soubin claims he “just can’t do simple dance steps at all”. Or ordering a second helping of fish fry, whilst pointing towards Vimal as the one who's paying. He makes his character so real that you'd think Puthren plucked him off a college campus. “Even when I would tell Alphonse that some of what I am doing is over the top, he would assure me that it’s fine,” Soubin had told this writer in an earlier interview.

The goofiness worked equally well in Aashiq Abu’s Rani Padmini¸ in which Soubin plays a TV cameraman. His gob-smacked look, when he thinks he is stuck in between a lesbian couple, is a hoot.

Martin Prakkat’s Charlie, starring Dulquer Salmaan, had a bit more for Soubin to do. He played Sunikuttan aka Mr D’Souza, a small-time thief who requires dark glasses during the day to find the house he ransacked at night. Be it his little hide-and-seek with the cops or his conversation with the vagabond Charlie (Dulquer), Soubin inspires affection. And in many ways, Soubin’s interpretation of the character subverts the stereotypes associated with celluloid thieves. Here’s a guy who loots, has this funny relationship with cops, and is up for some wisecracks. Someone who is essentially an ordinary thief gets a spin in Soubin's performance.

GETTING CLIQUE-Y WITH IT

Some of Soubin's best collaborations have undoubtedly been with his circle of friends. The character of Crispin from Maheshinte Prathikaram (Dileesh Pothan-Shyam Pushkaran) is one of the finest byproducts of that creative camaraderie. At his future employer’s home, Crispin decides to break the ice with a girl sprawled on the sofa, by presenting his bizarre comparative study between Mammootty and Mohanlal. Soubin does it with his characteristic impishness, such that you stifle a smile, just like the girl on screen. Crispin is earnest, doesn’t realise he is positively hazardous to be around, and genuinely believes he has only your best interests at heart.

The many faces of Soubin Shahir
The many faces of Soubin Shahir

Meanwhile, as Prakashan in Kali, Soubin added an irksome layer to his hysterical goofiness, giving a glimpse into his myriad possibilities as an actor. Having said that, nothing prepares you for his stunning cameo in Kammatipaadam as Karate Biju, who doesn’t utter a word but sells his brutality through his razor-sharp jabs.

NEXT INNINGS

While Soubin remained a welcome sight on screen, his debut directorial Parava (2017) was no less incisive. He placed it in a milieu he is familiar with — Mattanchery — for a tale about two teenagers who rear pigeons. With a poignant cameo by Dulquer Salmaan, Soubin made a spectacular debut, deftly capturing the nuances of a region as well as adding heft to the multitude of characters strung together in a wafer-thin plotline.

Then came 2018, and his second-biggest career breakthrough. Soubin, who even chuckled in a Kochi dialect, was suddenly cast as the Malappuram-based Majeed in Sudani From Nigeria. His first solo hero act, his role as Majeed saw Soubin play the manager of a football team in a small North Kerala town. Back home, Majeed is at odds with his stepfather and finding it difficult to get a bride. But his unexpected friendship with a Sudanese footballer thaws his insecurities, leading to a sweet closure. Soubin is all nuance as Majeed, and even his vaunted impishness lands correctly here, lending a subtle poignancy to the character.

Close on the heels of Majeed came another stunner from Soubin: the disoriented, idle and irresponsible brother Saji from Kumbalangi Nights. This time he was all restraint, and that included his innate mannerisms. Saji has a troubled past and present, and he doesn’t quite know how to swim ashore. He has a lot to give, but first he must sort himself out. Eventually, a bereavement leads to a meltdown for Saji, therapy, and a happy ending. One of the finest performances from the actor, Soubin disappears into the psyche of Saji, grasping the intricacies of someone who desperately needs an anchor. Look at the range he displays in these two scenes: one when he gently coaxes his step brother to be nice to him, and the second where he meets Shammy (Fahadh Faasil) to discuss a match between the latter's sister-in-law and Saji's brother.

RECENT MISSTEPS

Post-Kumbalangi Nights, except for an Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25, Soubin hasn’t been quite himself on screen: Either his roles feel stale, or stepping out of his comfort zone hasn't yielded the expected dividends. As a journalist in Trance, he was one of the films' weakest characters. In Irul, Soubin struggled as the businessman Alex Parayil, his sophistication coming across as laboured. In Santosh Sivan’s abysmal joke of a film, Jack N Jill, Soubin was collateral damage. And in CBI 5: The Brain, the actor had to wrestle with a badly-written character, which resulted in a botched showing.

Amal Neerad’s Bheeshma Parvam had Soubin playing Ajas against Mammootty's Michael. It wasn't a bad display at all, but Soubin simply didn't have the screen presence required to not be overshadowed by Mammootty's towering persona.

However, Ela Veezha Poonchira signalled a return to form for Soubin. As a cop who hides a morbid past to carry out his revenge, Soubin was ominous, quiet and intense. While his latest, Djinn, has been met with mixed reviews, Soubin's performance (he has a double role) has received widespread appreciation. “In the scene where he is waiting for his girlfriend, counting from 1 to 10, it was Soubin's suggestion that we keep it till 600. He is a very involved actor. And in real life, he is a genuinely funny guy. What you see on screen is just a whit,” adds Sidharth Bharathan, the director.

All said and done, occasional missteps are a part of every actor's trajectory. And cliques and comfort zones aren’t always a bad thing, if we get a Saji, Majeed and Crispin, now and then.

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